How to Fail – Guide to Let Your Kids Fail

Let’s talk about how to fail. Or more specifically, how to let your kids fail.

In sports, politics, and many other places in life, failure is a negative outcome.  It is a lack of success, a goal left unobtained.  In short, failure is a final step where you give up and move on to something else.

It is no wonder that children grow up struggling to cope with failure, especially when you add a culture where everything is almost instantaneous.  We freak out when something takes more than a couple of days to ship to us. 

We don’t know how to fail.

But we should. Failure happens to all of us ALL. THE. TIME. Maybe not big fails every day but little things that don’t work so we tweak it and keep going. Kids need to learn how to do that. And they need us to show them.

So how do we help our kids with “failure”?

Here are a few tips that you can use to help your kids navigate failure

1 – Set yourself up as the guide and not the hero

As parents, we want to shield our children from pain or disappointment.  So many times we swoop in and fix what is going wrong to prevent our child from failure. 

This. This is where the problem starts.  They begin to rely on us for all the answers.  And when we are not there to help out they fail and are devastated. 

It is essential that we set our children up as the hero of their own stories.  Hero’s are always struggling with something (just like us). They have barriers to overcome and villains to fight.  They ALWAYS had to overcome a difficult situation before they were victorious. 

They also have a guide that helped them through the process without solving the problem.  Luke Skywalker had Yoda, Batman had Alfred, etc. That’s us, folks! We’re Yoda. Grab your green big-eared hat and wear it proud!

Don’t solve your child’s problems!  Let them work through it even if it is hard.  Guide them through the process by asking them questions and giving them encouragement.  Although your questions don’t have to be as confusing as the real Yoda.

And most importantly don’t swoop in and save them from failing unless it is physically or emotionally dangerous.  

My kids’ FAVORITE phrase is “I can’t help you until you try it yourself“. I can’t tell you how many times I say this. They need help with math that “looks hard”, help with chores that will take too long, and various other things. But I will break out that phrase, they groan and get started.

And guess what? Usually, they can get it done all by themselves. Or if they are still struggling, I’ve had a chance to step back and see what part is difficult and if they really do need a little extra help.

Mission successful!

2 – Emphasize that failing is only a step in the process and not a final outcome

Rather than thinking of failure as a final outcome, children need to think of it as a necessary step in the process of learning.  It is an especially important step in problem-solving.  

The important part of this is what I call the debrief. A debrief where the outcome and process are analyzed to see where things went wrong and why.  Sometimes you just need to talk it out!

Then have them try again immediately.  Don’t put off another attempt for another time.  They must try it again asap!  If they leave it to try again later, they will likely have a bad taste in their mouth from the experience and be reluctant to do it again.  The last thing they do should be a win, even if it is a small one.

But give it a go! Failure is a sure step to learning.

Fail trying; don’t fail watching.

Bob Goff

3 – Praise their hard work and not their intelligence, and keep praise sparing

Intelligence is generally thought of as fixed or unchangeable. That’s not true but we tend to think it none the less.   And when we praise our children according to their intelligence, it tells them what they are good at and what they are not good at. 

When a child is faced with doing something they think they are not good at, they easily quit or do not give a good effort.  Who wants to spend time on something when we already “know” we’re no good at it?

Many people think they are bad at math. Not that they don’t understand that concept, not that they haven’t learned that piece yet. They are just bad at it – all the time, forever.

In an article on Psychology Today, Ph.D. Jim Taylor wrote “Research has shown that how you praise your children has a powerful influence on their development. The Columbia University researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck found that children who were praised for their intelligence, as compared to their effort, became overly focused on results. Following a failure, these same children persisted less, showed less enjoyment, attributed their failure to a lack of ability (which they believed they could not change), and performed poorly in future achievement efforts. Says Dweck: “Praising children for intelligence makes them fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure with stupidity.”

Praising children for intelligence makes them fear difficulty because they begin to equate failure with stupidity.

Carol Dweck – Columbia University researcher

Effort, effort, effort!! In addition to these points, I always hated when people would say “Of course it was easy for you, you’re so smart” when I would do well in school. Umm, I’m not just smart, I studied my keister off for that! That phrase totally ignored all my hard work.

Jim Taylor later goes on to say “Or really go out on a limb and don’t say anything at all to your children. As I just mentioned, kids know when they do well. By letting them come to this realization on their own, they learn to reinforce themselves and they don’t become praise junkies dependent on you for how they feel about their efforts and accomplishments.”

That last part really goes against the grain right? And we’re not advocating ignoring your kids. Just a little something for all of us to think about in this parenting quest with no manual.

4 – Be a good example of failure and how to fail. 

Children are always watching!  They pick up our words and phrases, our mannerisms, our beliefs, and yes how we handle adversity and failure.  They see how we respond to these things and they mimic them.  So if you want your child to develop good habits and to handle adversity and failure better, you better think twice before quitting a project.

When things are hard and you push through, talk to your kids about it. What makes it hard for you, how do you feel when it’s difficult, and why you keep going. Mention past failure that have even led to success!

If you’ve decided it’s time to quit something, explain why to your kids. Sometimes we do quit things. But it is because we failed? Or is it because it isn’t fitting our goals? Maybe we’ve had a shift in priorities?

Kids don’t know what’s going on in our super adult, we-know-everything heads. They just know what we do. So as we model and talk them through the process.

So there it is! Failure is just another skill on the list of life learning. But we can helping our kids navigate failure well today will have big benefits for the future.

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